“The Americans Were Arming Themselves and Making Other Bellicose Displays”: The Killing of Antonio Ruiz by Deputy Constable William W. Jenkins, Los Angeles, 19 July 1856, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As part of the Homestead’s multi-part series of presentations under the banner of “Curious Cases,” one of the more notable discussions was about the killing of Antonio Ruiz by deputy constable William W. Jenkins in Los Angeles on 19 July 1856. The homicide quickly roused racial and ethnic tensions in a town already wracked by incredible levels of violence along with troubled relations between Spanish-speaking Californios, Mexicans and Central and South Americans on one hand and Europeans and Americans on the other.

Since the Mexican-American War, when the United States invaded México on a pretense and seized California, and the Gold Rush years through the mid-1850s, these antagonisms frequently flared up, particularly when conflict took place between these broad groups. In general, violence was so rampant that some chroniclers of the Angel City, particularly the colorful, if not always factually careful, Horace Bell, and Harris Newmark, claimed that there was a murder a day in Los Angeles in 1853. About two decades ago, a team of researchers combed through newspapers and other sources and found about three dozen or so documented homicides, a far cry from the more dramatic 365, but even that smaller number dwarfed statistics in American cities and the time and now.

So, there was no question (even the matter of degree is in dispute) that the Angel City was often a den of deviltry and newspaper editors and citizens broadly grew increasingly frustrated as the Fifties continued to be an era of astonishing crime and violence. In some cases, residents subverted the legal system, which was very poorly financed and staffed, and took retribution into their own hands. Early in the decade, the tendency was to mimic the legal system through a so-called “popular tribunal,” in which there was a judge, prosecutor, defender, and jury, though the conclusions were always foregone and the defendant found guilty, being almost always hung immediately after the pro-forma trial.

Los Angeles Star, 26 July 1856.

By the middle of the decade, though, even these barest of formalities were dispensed with as mobs might have a quick meeting and then storm the jail, seize a suspect and hang him without any pretense of due process whatsoever. Another Curious Cases talk concerned the legal execution of Felipe Alvitre and the lynching that immediately followed of David Brown, these taking place in January 1855 and also covered in a multi-part post on the blog earlier this year. Both men were arrested the prior fall for murder, Alvitre having killed James Ellington near El Monte and not far from the Homestead, and Brown for the homicide of Pinckney Clifford at a Los Angeles stable.

That post began with a fairly detailed summary of conditions at the time with respect to law enforcement and criminal justice in Los Angeles and its environs, so readers are invited to take a look at that, but the gist, as briefly referred to above, is that, with tax rates incredibly low by modern standards, there just wasn’t enough funding for policing and the courts. The frustrations of many citizens, consequently, led to vigilance committees, lynch mobs and other near-anarchic reactions that crystallized in the Alvitre-Brown instance.

When Brown was arrested, a public meeting was held and a cry for lynching the well-known criminal was raised before Mayor Stephen C. Foster called for letting the legal system operate first and, then, if the results were not satisfactory, he pledged to resign and lead a lynching party to wreak retribution on Brown. Alvitre was not the subject of any such meeting, but, after both men were duly convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced by District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes to death, Brown was able to get a stay of execution to the California Supreme Court, while Alvitre’s petition was apparently delayed.

Star, 26 July 1856.

As Alvitre was legally executed on 12 January 1855, a swelling, agitated and angry crowd milled about the courthouse and jail and, with Foster following through on his promise, a large group then overpowered the sheriff, his deputy and a few citizens summoned to protect the facility. They pulled Brown from his cell, leaving another convicted murderer awaiting his sentence of death, El Monte resident William B. Lee, cowering nearby. Using the gallows just employed for the grisly hanging of Alvitre, the mob lynched Brown and then melted away. Foster, incidentally, won the special election for mayor and returned to office.

This context might help better understand the situation on 19 July 1856, when Justice of the Peace Alexander Gibson, enforcing a writ of attachment for a $50 debt owned by Antonio Ruiz, deputized 25-year old William W. Jenkins to proceed to Ruiz’ residence and seize any property of that value to satisfy the court order. This was a prime illustration of how a basic lack of professionalization permeated the criminal justice administration of that era. Jenkins, who migrated to Los Angeles several years ago with his family, including brother Charles M. Jenkins, and whose stepfather George Dalton was the brother of Rancho Azusa owner Henry Dalton, was, essentially, a private citizen empowered by a judge on the spot with law enforcement powers, something that is inconceivable to us today.

The Los Angeles Star, whose new proprietor was Henry Hamilton and which had no qualms about lambasting authorities for a real or perceived inability to combat violent crime nor was particularly sympathetic to people of color, reported in its 26 July edition that:

On that morning Jenkins proceeded to execute the writ, and meeting with some little obstruction in the discharge of his duty, rashly pulled his pistol and fired, the ball taking effect in the breast of Antonio Ruis [sic], causing his death on the evening of the following day, Sunday.

What it did add was that, while it demurred on comment on the situation because the preliminary examination before Judge Hayes was published in the edition, “it will be seen by the evidence, that the conduct of the officer was wholly uncalled for, no opposition being made to the execution, requiring a forcible display, much less for the sacrifice of human life.” The Star did continue that “circumstances, however, have since occurred, which have almost obliterated the offence from the public mind.”

Star, 26 July 1856.

The paper went on that “immediately after committing the rash deed,” Jenkins turned himself in to a justice of the peace, who set him free on bail, the amount of which was not given. When Ruiz died the following day, an arrest warrant was issued by Judge Hayes on petition of the district attorney, Cameron Thom, who was new to the office during the Alvitre-Brown controversy and became a state senator at the end of the Fifties, was D.A. during the Chinese Massacre of October 1871 and served as mayor from 1882-1884.

Jenkins was sent to jail under the guard of Charles E. Hale, deputy of Los Angeles County Sheriff David W. Alexander, a close friend of the Workman and Temple family, pending the preliminary examination. Hale, however, “did not think it proper to place him in confinement, but let him go at large, and to this circumstance, in our opinion, is mainly attributable the excitement that followed, the Spanish [speaking] population taking offence that one who had, in their estimation, committed a murder, should be at large and armed.” In fact, it is certainly worth asking what would have happened in the same situation if a Latino killed an Anglo?

The Star observed that “the deceased was a quiet, inoffensive man, and was highly esteemed by his acquaintances” and, so, when the funeral was held at the Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills below where Dodger Stadium is today, there was a public meeting “to consider what should be done on the occasion.” It was asserted that “the malign influence of certain firebrands was exerted to rouse the people to an attack on the jail, in which, by order of Judge Hayes, the accused had been confined.” It was only through “the exertions of certain gentlemen, Californians and Mexicans, [that] this was overruled and a committee of six selected “to assist the officers in protecting the jail, and to see that the law was impartially administered.”

El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856. Thanks to Paul Bryan Gray for supplying his copies of the paper.

While the conclave concluded and most persons peaceably retired, “the ringleaders not liking this, attempted to create a disturbance in the town” and avoided arrest by fleeing and it was noted that an unnamed French-born man, later identified as Fernando Carriaga, “made himself particularly obnoxious, by wholesale and violent denunciations of Americans.” He was also said to be the head of a “lawless band who assembled to sack the city, and murder the inhabitants,” though how it was known that this was the aim, impossible as it would have been to even fractionally achieve, was not stated.

When Latinos were gathered in the cemetery, the paper observed, “reports were brought to town of the nature of speeches, and alarm began to spread among our citizens,” the key words, perhaps, being “reports” and “our people.” While the Star reported that the talk by some of storming the jail was defused, it separately stated that “the citizens [which, precisely?] began to arm in self-defence” and proceed to the jail to guard Jenkins and “give them a warm reception should they attempt to carry out their threats,” though no such effort was made.

The Star had one contemporary paper, the Spanish-language El Clamor Público, which was published for four years (1855-1859) by the extraordinary young native of Los Angeles, Francisco P. Ramirez. Only 18 when he launched the paper, Ramirez was educated, worldly and articulate not just beyond his age but for that age, though most of his support seems to have come from the French-speaking community through the agency of his godfather, Jean Louis Vignes. Still, the heady mixture of maturity for his youth, idealism, knowledge and writing style set Ramirez apart in so many ways in 1850s Los Angeles.

El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856.

While the Star acknowledged the “rashness” of Jenkins’ actions, El Clamor was more specific in its reporting, noting that

Without further reason or cause, the deputy drew his pistol with a furious gesture. Seeing this action so out of place and believing that the lady was going to be infamously outraged, Señor Ruiz grabbed him from behind telling him to calm down, but the other shot him through the chest.

The paper also went into more detail about Ruiz, commenting that the 33-year old lived about ten to twelve hours longer than expected by the doctor, Manuel Chariarse, who attended to him, and that, “after a slow and quiet agony,” he bade farewell to his friends :who said goodbye to him with tears in their eyes and feeling in their hearts.” It went on to note that “he was poor but he did not humble himself to earn a living” and was the sole supporter for his family.” Ruiz’ death “attracted the most tender sympathies of all” and “left the souls of his friends and acquaintances desolate.”

With respect to the funeral, El Clamor reported that the procession “went in double columns that occupied both sides of the street” with the mourners such that they “behaved in the most respectful way that could be desired.” Leading the assembly was a band “that played sad and solemn tunes” and it was added that “the large number of individuals that accompanied the body could barely fit” in the cemetery.

El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856.

There was, though, a significant variance from the Star in terms of what transpired after the services, with the paper averring that, returning from the cemetery, the assembly appointed a commission to inform the authorities that they were all ready to uphold their decision and demand assurances that they would not let the prisoner escape, as has often happened.” Significantly, Ramirez continued,

We watched as the people made their way to the Court House, and saw that the Americans were arming themselves and making other bellicose displays—they probably believed they were trying to get the criminal out of jail and hang him according to Lynch’s law. That was not his intention. The people were going to ask for a favor and claim what was fair. They entered peacefully and made known the object they were bringing with good and courteous reasons. The deputy sheriff promised to fulfill his obligation, and that if the prisoner was to escape, he would be ready to respond. They all admitted this assurance, and dispersed with great satisfaction.

The paper did note that, “as the people arrived at the court house, a Frenchman [Carriaga], animated by some curious patriotism, knocked a ‘law and order’ individual off his horse, and ran off furiously, leaving behind his hat and part of his coat, perhaps as a memorial to the capture of Sebastopol.” This last part of the comment referred to the recent famous siege during the Crimean War of Sevastopol, which was seized with the rest of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine by Russia in 2014.

El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856.

El Clamor added that Juan Hernández was arrested at the court house and was, for a time, thought to have been killed, because some Anglos insisted “he was the main ringleader of the ‘tumult,” and it was suggested by some of the Americans and Europeans that Hernández be put to death. The paper recorded that “fortunately, Señor Hernández was saved by the intervention of a friend, to whom he does not fail to express his most sincere gratitude.”

This part one now concluded, we’ll return tomorrow with part two of this remarkable sequence of events, so be sure to check back with us then!

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